Guest post by Andy Norman.
I spent from January to April this year as an intern at Seed Change. During this time, I wrote a blog for a sustainability organisation in the UK about my experience in Kigoma. Here it is!
The environmental imperative for sustainability in our world is now clearer than ever. At the same time, an unpalatably high number of people are still living in intolerable poverty across the globe. And so, right at the top of the international agenda sits the question of how to bring prosperity to all corners of the earth in a sustainable, viable manner. Some may suggest that the term ‘sustainable development’ is oxy-moronic – India’s intention to triple its CO2 emissions in the next 15 years in order to fuel its war on poverty is indicative of this sentiment. Are ensuring sustainability and poverty alleviation really incompatible goals? They may seem so at the global level, but organisations on the ground all over the world are proving that they don’t have to be. One of these is Seed Change, an agricultural non-profit based in western Tanzania, where I have come to spend three months, having recently completed my MSc at SOAS.
Seed Change Tanzania imports high-yield palm oil seeds from Costa Rica, grows them for twelve months in a seed nursery and then hands them out to subsistence level palm oil farmers from the remote surrounding villages.
These are the kinds of people that sweeping international development strategies sent down from on high really struggle to reach. What could the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals possibly mean to a smallholder farmer from Mahembe village, for example? The only sign in the villages that the global community even exists is the scruffy English football jerseys hanging loosely from the children, discarded by their European counterparts. During my time here, the value of grass roots sustainable development strategies tailored to the specific needs of local people has come into sharp focus.
There are 80,000 smallholder palm oil farmers in the Kigoma region alone, all with incomes severely limited by the low yields of their trees. Seed Change trees produce a yield potentially ten times that of native trees, thus providing these farmers with the means to permanently escape monetary poverty. They can now vastly increase their incomes without increasing land use. Combined with an extensive extension programme that emphasises sustainable, responsible farming, this ensures that the poverty alleviation does not come at the expense of the environment. The result is a sustainable development strategy that is embracive of global opportunities but driven by local context.
My experience with Seed Change has been enlightening. Studying for a Masters in Development Economics whilst never having been to a developing country now feels just a tad disingenuous. I think right up until I stepped off the plane, part of me questioned whether the developing world really existed outside the pages of textbooks and journal articles, as if it was just a theoretical exercise. I was detached from the realities of it all, and how could I not be, having grown up in the effortless affluence of the English countryside, where poverty is relative and everything just works? I had studied the developing world for years, I was more than familiar with complex development theories, from Dutch Disease to the two-gap model, and yet I couldn’t help but be shocked when there it was in front of me: the heat, the dust, the sounds, the smells, the underlying absence of a safety net, the human face of development. These are the uncompromising realities you just can’t understand from a London lecture hall.
I’ve spent countless hours studying the policies and strategies aimed at bringing prosperity to every corner of the earth. But while these global development paradigms are pioneered in the high-power meeting rooms and conference halls of London and Washington, it is in the fields of Kigoma, Tanzania that I have seen with my own eyes a genuine, tangible difference being made in the struggle for sustainable development.